Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 21 May 1807

Philadelphia May 21st. 1807


In arranging the papers which I brought with me from Washington, I have had the mortification to find the enclosed letter, written immediately before my departure from the city, and intended to have been forwarded by the post of that evening, but which it appears, in the hurry of packing up has slipped into my paper case. I still beg the favor of you to read it, as it contains my reasons for the measures I took previous to my departure, and will explain the manner in which I hoped to accomplish your objects, as respects the arrangements of the ground around the president’s house.—

On the 16th. currt. your letter d. Monticello April 22d. reached me here, being forwarded by Mr. Lenthall. Hoping to be at Washington as soon at least as your return I did not immediately answer it. But I am now waiting from day to day for the arrival of one of the Georgetown packets, in order to put my things on board previous to my removal. Ellwood has been expected daily for more than a week, but is not arrived. As soon as he comes, I shall set off being in every respect ready.—

In regard to the plaistering I had already ordered the plaisterers to desist from finishing the great hall untill the arrival of the Glass.—I have the pleasure to inform you, that it may now be expected in three weeks time. I have heard that it is packed & would be shipped by the first Vessel.—It ought to be here the first week in June.—

I am very sensible of the honor you do me in discussing with me the merits of the detail of the public buildings.—I know well that to you it is my duty to obey implicitly, or to resign my office: to myself, it is my duty to maintain myself in a situation in which I can provide for my family by all honorable means; & if in any instance my duty to You obliged me to act contrary to my judgment; I might fairly & honestly say with Shakspeare’s apothecary “My poverty, not my will, consents.”—Such excuse however I have never wanted,—for altho’ in respect to the pannel lights I am acting diametrically contrary to my judgment,—no mercenary motive whatever has kept me at my post,—but considerations very superior to money;—the attachment arising from gratitude, & the highest esteem.—At the same time I candidly confess that the question has often suggested itself to my mind,—What shall I do, when the condensed vapor of the hall showers down upon the heads of the members from 100 skylights, as it now does from the skylight of our new Anatomical Hall,—as it did from the six skylights of the Round house, as it did from the Lanthorn of the Pennsylvania bank and as it does from that of our University?—An event which I believe to be as certain as that cold Air & cold Glass will condense warm vapor. This question I have asked myself daily for many months past.—I shall certainly not cut my throat as the Engineer of Staines bridge did,—when the Butment failed & his beautiful bridge fell, because the Commissioners had ordered him to proceed contrary to his judgment.—But I dare not think long enough on the subject to frame an answer to my own mind, but go blindly on, hoping that,—“fata viam invenient.”—

In respect to the general subject of cupolas, I do not think that they are always,—nor even often ornamental.–My principles of good taste are rigid In Grecian architecture, I am a bigotted Greek, to the condemnation of the roman architecture of Balbec Palmyra, Spalatro, and of all the buildings erected subsequent to Hadrian’s reign. The immense Size, the bold plans & arrangements of the buildings of the Romans down almost to Constatine’s Arch, plundered from the triumphal arches of former Emperors, I admire however with enthusiasm, but think their decorations & details absurd beyond tolerance, from the reign of Severus downwards.—Wherever therefore the Grecian style can be copied without impropriety I love to be a mere, I would say a slavish copyist, but the forms & the distribution of the Roman & Greek buildings which remain, are in general inapplicable to the objects & uses of our public buildings. Our religion requires churches wholly different from their temples; our government, our legislative assemblies, & our courts of Justice buildings of entirely different principles from their basilica’s; & our amusements could not possibly be performed in their Theatres or amphitheatres. But that which principally demands a variation in our buildings from those of the ancients is the difference of our climate.—To adhere to the subject of cupolas, altho’ the want of a belfry which is an Eastern accession to our religious buildings,—rendered them a necessary appendage to the church,—yet I cannot admit that because the Greeks & Romans did not place elevated cupolas upon their temples,—they may not,—where necessary,—be rendered also beautiful. The lanthern of Demosthenes than which nothing of the kind can be more beautiful, would not be the less beautiful if mounted upon a magnificent Mass of architecture harmonizing with it in character & style. The question would be as to its real or apparent utility in the place in which it appeared: for nothing in the eye of good taste (which ought never to be at warfare with good sense) can be beautiful which appears useless or unmeaning.—

If our climate were such as to admit of our doing legislative business in the open air,—that is, under the light of an open orifice in the crown of a dome, as at the pantheon,—I would never put a cupola on any spherical dome. It is not the ornament,—it is the use that I want.—

If you will be pleased to refer to Degodetz you would see that there is a rim projecting above the arch of the Pantheon at the opening.—This rim, in the dome projected for the centre piece of the Capitol is raised by me into a low pedestal for the purpose of covering a Skylight which could there be admitted, altho’ I think it inadmissible in a room of business. But I should prefer the hemisphere I confess.—As to the members of congress, with the utmost respect for the Legislature, I should scarcely consult, but rather dictate in matters of taste.

I beg pardon for this trespass on your time. You have spoiled me, by former indulgence in hearing my opinions expressed with candor. A few days will give me the pleasure of personally assuring you of the profound respect of Yrs. Faithfully

B H Latrobe

DLC: Papers of Thomas Jefferson.

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